The state’s security and human security as a new prospect for cooperation

The Arab Human Development Report 2004 introduced a definition of authoritarian governance in Arab countries as a term designating forms of government where the balance of power is skewed towards the executive, in such a way as to effectively undermine or extinguish the separation of powers, thereby depriving citizens of their freedoms and protections. In reply to the question as to what the prospects for reform might be among Arab regimes, the 2004 report found that significant progress could be made by way of cooperation with outside forces, but only so long as a number of principles were observed, among which the following:

  • 1 “freedom for all and complete adherence to international human rights law, in particular the right to national liberation’’ (UNDP 2005, 20);
  • 2 “absolute respect for the tenet that Arabs should find their own way to freedom and good governance through innovation by Arab social forces, without pressure to adopt ready-made models, as the firm guarantee of a successful and sustainable historic transformation” (ibid.);
  • 3 “guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary” (ibid.); and
  • 4 “abolishing the state of emergency” (ibid.).

In the Arab Human Development Report 2009, the problem of reforming Arab regimes is attacked from a different angle, that of human security. Indeed, human security is viewed as a necessary background condition for achieving human development, which in turn is understood as necessary for economic development. In the 2009 report, human security is defined as the “liberation of human beings from those intense, extensive, prolonged, and comprehensive threats to which their lives and freedoms are vulnerable” (UNDP 2009, 2). This definition lays emphasis on “environmental resources and the state’s role in guaranteeing or undermining human security, as well as its role in relation to the insecurity of vulnerable groups, poverty [...], and general insecurity tied to employment and to foreign military interventions” (Saaf'2010, 31; my translation).


The French original: “Ces définitions mettent en évidence les pressions sur les ressources environnementales, la performance de l’Etat en termes de garantie ou d’atteinte à la sécurité humaine, l’insécurité propre aux groupes vulnérables, la pauvreté et le chômage, la sécurité alimentaire et la nutrition, la santé et la sécurité humaine, l’insécurité généralisée liée à l’occupation et aux interventions militaires étrangères.”

It is a significant turning point that this policy vision signals, since in many cases the state seems to act more as a threat to human security than as its main guarantor (ibid., 33).

The 2009 report is sceptical of government-sponsored reform initiatives: instead, the point is emphatically made that democratic change in the Arab world needs to originate from society itself,[1] underscoring how the Arab world is home to a wealth of civil-society organizations, such as human-rights organizations, NGOs, and other community groups. The report is accordingly clear about the path to be followed: “Reform from within remains its first and best hope for meaningful security in Arab countries, starting with the essential rights of the people. This reform cannot be imposed from outside; neither can democratic models be imported wholesale. Arab countries need to adapt different institutional forms suited to the context of each of them” (UNDP 2009, 76).

The 2009 report identifies “four forces that could have a role” in bringing about democratic transformation in the Arab world: “political opposition groups (with the Islamic movements to the fore), civil society organisations, business people and, lastly, citizens, when they are allowed to participate through the ballot box” (ibid., 70-71).

Especially active among these are the “civil society movements,” which “in several Arab states [...] have developed a political identity and have begun to make their views felt” (ibid., 71). These movements can foster democratic development through several initiatives, such as calling for stronger protections of basic freedoms, or putting out reports monitoring the progress of human rights in each country, or appealing to the law and the courts when the opportunity arises to put an end to human-rights violations. The 2009 report mentions, by way of example, the tactics adopted in Egypt by the grassroots coalition called Kifaya (“Enough!”), which “inspired citizens to use mass protest to press their demands on the government” (ibid.). In fact this group can be reckoned among the forces whose action contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Egypt. And this can be taken as evidence supporting the view expressed in the report that if democratic change is to sweep across Arab countries ruled by a regime, that change needs to work its way up from the bottom, that is, it needs to be located in civil society.

According to the 2009 report, the human-security approach offers a promising opportunity for countries in the Euro-Mediterranean area to cooperate. In fact, the approach was set out with a view to working it into the region’s economic, social, and cultural project (Saaf2010, 31).

Worthy of mention as a European cooperation effort is the Instrument for Stability, introduced by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe: the purpose of this instrument, effective from 2007 to 2013, was to make it possible to deliver economic, financial, technical, and humanitarian aid to third countries. This principled goal was stated in the very opening of the instrument’s underlying regulation: “The promotion of stable conditions for human and economic development and the promotion of human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms remains one of the prime objectives of European Union [...] external action to which Community instruments for external assistance contribute.” But while this language comports with the European Union’s self-understanding as a civil power, it stands in contrast to the policies pursued by the European states, for which stability essentially means implementing measures aimed at security and migration control.

It is the first approach that needs to prevail, in such a way that the EU will no longer back autocratic Arab regimes. Indeed, if there is any lesson that in this regard can be learned from the Arab Spring revolutions, it is that there is always a latent energy in the people, and when this energy turns effervescent, it makes for an opportunity that the EU can seize on to move beyond its instrumental approach to foreign policy in the Mediterranean’s southern shore.

  • [1] An assumption the 2009 report makes in this connection is that of a civil society. But in the Western philosophical canon, as is known, this concept designates a society essentially made up of individuals (with their individual needs), and so, in a strict sense, the concept cannot be applied to Arab societies, which instead tend to be rooted in a communitarian tradition. 2 As is pointed out in the Arab Human Development Report 2004, there were at the time more than 130,000 civil-society organizations in the Arab world. However, they tended to be concentrated in certain countries (18,000 in Egypt, 25,000 in Algeria, 7,000 in Tunisia, 4,600 in Lebanon, 1,500 in Jordan), with only a negligible presence in other countries (UNDP 2005, 133).
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